Book Review: This is your brain on music – Understanding a Human Obsession

monotypepressing book review this is your brain on music

What causes certain songs to stir emotions while others fail to resonate with us? Why do particular sequences of sounds trigger discomfort in many people? What motivates our inclination to listen to music? And, how is it possible for individuals lacking the motor coordination to button their shirt to play the piano? These are just a few of the questions addressing why we perceive music the way we do and exploring the impact of music on our brain. Daniel Levitin endeavours to shed light on these inquiries in his book, ‘This is Your Brain on Music – Understanding a Human Obsession.’ We have read and dissected the book, and created a short book review for you.

About the author

Daniel J. Levitin is a renowned neuroscientist and musician with a diverse and impressive background. He holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Oregon and has conducted extensive research in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and music perception. Before his academic career, Levitin worked as a professional musician, sound engineer, and record producer, collaborating with numerous artists and gaining deep insights into the music industry. His dual expertise in science and music positions him to explore the complex connections between the brain and music, making his work both credible and compelling.

Content overview

Levitin’s book is an examination of how music affects our brains and why it holds such a significant place in our lives. He breaks down the science of music into digestible sections, starting with the basics of sound and music theory before moving into the neurological and psychological responses that music provokes.

Chapter 1: What is Music?

Levitin introduces the basic elements of music, such as pitch, rhythm, tempo, and timbre. He explains how these components come together to create music and discusses the cultural and universal aspects of music. The chapter sets the foundation for understanding the scientific basis of musical perception.

Chapter 2: The Pleasures of Music

This chapter delves into why music is enjoyable and explores the connection between music and emotion. Levitin discusses how music triggers pleasure centers in the brain, releasing dopamine. He also covers the evolutionary theories on why humans developed musical abilities and its role in social bonding.

Chapter 3: Behind the Curtain

Levitin provides an overview of the brain’s anatomy and how different regions are involved in processing music. He explains how the auditory cortex, hippocampus, and frontal lobes work together to perceive and interpret music. The chapter highlights the complexity and sophistication of the brain’s response to music.

Chapter 4: Anticipation

This chapter focuses on the brain’s ability to predict musical patterns and structures. Levitin explains how anticipation and surprise in music create emotional responses. He discusses the psychological concepts of expectation, memory, and learning in the context of music.

Chapter 5: You Know My Name, Look Up the Number

Levitin explores the concept of musical memory, discussing how and why certain songs or pieces of music are easily remembered. He examines the relationship between music and personal identity, and how music can evoke vivid memories and emotions.

Chapter 6: After Dessert, Crick Was Still Four Seats Away from Me

This chapter addresses the role of music in social contexts, including rituals, ceremonies, and social gatherings. Levitin discusses the social functions of music, such as its ability to enhance group cohesion and communicate emotions.

Chapter 7: What Makes a Musician?

Levitin investigates what differentiates musicians from non-musicians, including the cognitive and neurological differences. He discusses the importance of practice, talent, and education in becoming a skilled musician, and the role of the brain’s plasticity in musical development.

Chapter 8: My Favorite Things

This chapter explores why people have different musical preferences and tastes. Levitin examines the factors that influence musical preference, including cultural background, personality, and individual experiences. He also discusses how exposure and familiarity play roles in shaping musical likes and dislikes.

Chapter 9: The Music Instinct

Levitin concludes by discussing the broader implications of music on human life. He reflects on the importance of music in human evolution, its potential therapeutic uses, and its ability to foster human connection. The chapter synthesizes the scientific and emotional aspects of music discussed throughout the book.


Fundamental Music Concepts: Levitin provides a solid introduction to fundamental music concepts, making it a valuable resource for beginners. However, for those not well-versed in music, the explanations might be challenging to comprehend without accompanying audio examples. Conversely, readers who are already knowledgeable about music might find those sections somewhat tedious.

Scientific Insights: Levitin offers a thorough explanation of the distinctions between the mind and the brain, detailing which parts of the brain are activated by different external elements. While this is enlightening, it might be overwhelming for readers unfamiliar with anatomical terminology.

Music Examples from Different Genres: Levitin frequently uses examples of songs from various genres to illustrate music theory concepts. This approach is beneficial for readers who are familiar with these songs, as it helps them connect theory with practice. However, it can be challenging for those who do not know these songs or for younger readers, as many examples are drawn from older songs or less-known genres compared to what is commonly heard “on the radio”.

Personal Anecdotes: Levitin effectively uses personal anecdotes to enrich his explanations, adding a relatable and engaging element to the narrative.


“This Is Your Brain on Music” is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the science behind music’s impact on the human brain. Levitin’s dual perspective as a neuroscientist and musician provides a unique and thorough examination of the topic. The book not only enhances our understanding of music but also deepens our appreciation for its pervasive role in human life. Whether you are a musician, a music lover, or simply curious about the workings of the brain, Levitin’s insightful and thought-provoking exploration is well worth your time.